'My Brother's Keeper': Cain, Abel and the World's First Sibling Rivalry

By: Dave Roos  | 

Cain killing Abel bronze detail
This gilded bronze detail from the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, Tuscany, shows Cain killing Abel. DeAgostini/Getty Images

The biblical story of Cain and Abel runs only 17 short verses in the book of Genesis, but it contains a significant number of "firsts": Earth's first pair of siblings, God's first mention of sin, and most famously the first act of murder in human history.

Whether or not you believe that these two brothers ever existed, the morality tale of Cain and Abel is a foundational myth of Western culture. Rabbi Dan Ornstein of Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York, says that Cain and Abel remain so fascinating and relevant today because it's more than a cautionary tale about the dangers of sibling rivalry. The story functions as a "mirror" that all readers — religious or not — can use to reflect on our own thoughts and actions.

"Why do we do violence toward each other? Where do our hatreds come from and how are they expressed?" says Ornstein, author of "Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama." "Ultimately, we're forced to ask ourselves the basic question of the story, which is, 'Are we our brothers' keepers?' The answer, of course, is yes, but that's not something that Cain was willing to admit."

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A Quick Summary of Cain and Abel

If you don't remember the story of Cain and Abel, here's a short primer.

The plot picks up right after Adam and Eve eat the "forbidden fruit," and are ejected from the garden paradise of Eden, to live difficult lives full of pain and struggle in punishment for disobedience. In their new place of residence, Eve gives birth to a son whom she names Cain. In time, a second son is born named Abel.

Cain, it says in the King James Version of Genesis, was a "tiller of the ground" (i.e., a farmer), while his younger brother Abel was a shepherd. When both men offer sacrifices to God — Cain with his fruits and vegetables, and Abel with the "firstlings of his flock" (some of the firstborn sheep) — the Lord rejects Cain's offering and accepts Abel's.

In response, Cain is "very wroth" (angry and upset) and God tries to counsel him, warning that "sin lieth at the door" if Cain continues to behave that way. But Cain doesn't listen. Instead, he invites his brother to go with him to a field (the text suggests that they talk or perhaps quarrel there) and then Cain kills his brother.

God asks Cain where Abel is, to which Cain famously replies, "I know not. Am I my brother's keeper?" God lets Cain know he hears the blood of Abel "crying" from the ground and as punishment for this violent act, Cain will have it even harder to grow food and is condemned to a "fugitive" life of wandering.

When Cain complains that his punishment is too harsh and that people will kill him when they find out about his crime, God "marks" Cain with a special protection that will safeguard him from vengeance. Cain then goes to live in the land of Nod (east of Eden), sires a son named Enoch and founds a city (the first city?) in Enoch's fame. End of story.

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Did Cain Have a Right to Be Angry?

Rabbi Ornstein says there's good reason to believe that the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, like others in the book of Genesis, is an abridged version of a much longer and more detailed myth that circulated for centuries in the ancient Near East. So why did the editors of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible starting with Genesis) decide to include such a bare-bones version of the first fratricide?

By paring the story of Cain and Abel down to just 17 verses, the ancient biblical authors purposefully left holes in the narratives, says Ornstein.

"Rather than give you a bunch of answers, the Torah's editors wanted you, the faithful reader — or the not-so-faithful reader — to ask really good questions," says Ornstein, "questions about ourselves and others, what it means to be human and what it means to be responsible for your fellow human beings, who are your brothers and sisters."

For modern readers, one of the more interesting questions to ask is why Cain was so angry and hurt, and whether Cain's mistreatment at the hands of God somehow excused his crime.

Cain was the firstborn son of Adam and Eve. The Hebrew for Cain is Cayin, which means "acquire," according to Ornstein. Eve says in Genesis that she named him Cain because, "I have gotten a man from the Lord." As firstborn, Cain followed in his father's footsteps. When Adam was expelled from Eden, God sentenced him to till the now "cursed" earth, and Cain was the one who continued Adam's labor as a farmer.

In contrast, when Abel was born, Eve doesn't explain why she gave him that name. The Hebrew for Abel is Hevel, which means "vapor" or "steam" in Hebrew, according to Ornstein. Abel doesn't follow in the "family business" of battling thistles and weeds by the sweat of his brow but raises sheep instead.

Yet when Cain, the beloved firstborn child, offers God a sacrifice of the hard-won fruits of his harvest, God rejects it. Seemingly ignoring the "family history" of the expulsion from Eden and the cursing of the ground for Adam's sake, God turns up his nose at Cain's paltry produce and finds favor instead with the animal sacrifice of the second-born Abel, literally a "nothing man" who doesn't even utter a word in Genesis.

From Cain's perspective, he had every reason to be "wroth." If Cain's sacrifice was unacceptable, it was because he was hamstrung by his father's curse, and therefore it was unfair for God to compare Cain's offering of vegetables to his younger brother's delectable and fatty roasted meat.

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The Meaning of Cain and Abel

Ornstein sees an important lesson here. Yes, it's unfair that Cain, as a farmer, inherited his father's curse. And yes, it's cruel that God rejected Cain's offering without giving a good reason and found favor in his brother's instead. But one of the morals of this ancient story is that no matter how justified you are in being angry, even when your life circumstances seem cruel and unfair, there is still no excuse for lashing out and hurting others.

"We talk about family history and cultural history when we're discussing all of the different circumstances that cause people to do the terrible things that they do, and those things have to be taken into account," says Ornstein. "But at its very core, the story is trying to say that morally none of that background stuff is of greater significance than the fact that this person standing in front of you is your brother, and that you have the responsibility to treat him as your brother, not as your enemy."

It's also not an accident, adds Ornstein, that Adam and Eve are almost completely absent from Cain and Abel's story. Again, the authors of the Torah may have been trying to drive the point home that the experience of Cain's parents and their interactions with God aren't at issue here. When the two brothers are standing alone in that "killing field," says Ornstein, "all of the other stuff is stripped away" and all that matters is what Cain chooses to do.

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The 'Mark of Cain'

In common usage, the phrase "mark of Cain" is usually understood as a punishment and therefore someone branded with the "mark of Cain" is an unforgivable outcast. But that's a false reading of the text in Genesis, which clearly explains that God marked Cain for his protection. As it says in Genesis 4, verse 15:

"Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him."

The nature of this mark isn't clear, though, and it's been hypothesized as everything from a word tattooed on his forehead, to a horn and even as dark skin. In the 18th to 20th centuries, some American Christian churches falsely rationalized their support of slavery or segregation of parishioners by equating black skin with the mark of Cain.

What's important to Ornstein is recognizing that God didn't destroy Cain as punishment for his crime or cut Cain off from His presence. Instead, the mark of Cain was a symbol of God's mercy.

"Even after Cain has essentially killed a quarter of all humanity, God continues to enter into a relationship with Cain, the way he enters into a relationship with all of humanity no matter the terrible things we do," says Ornstein.

The book of Genesis is a full of dysfunctional sibling relationships, whether it's the twins Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his 11 brothers, or Moses and his brother Aaron.

"If you place the Cain and Abel story in the context of all of the book of Genesis, which is a series of stories about siblings and sibling rivalry," says Ornstein, "what seems pretty clear is that Cain and Abel sets up the question that the rest of Genesis is trying to answer, which is, 'Are we our brother's keepers?' Joseph's answer, and therefore ours, is a resounding yes."

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